Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work's co-directors, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, previously explored sombre subjects such as Rwandan genocide and the story of a death row inmate in some of their previous films. Their latest documentary tackles a decidedly less heavy subject in the trailblazing comedienne, but don't be fooled by the notion a movie about somebody that makes people laugh for a living will be devoid of its own share of (relatively) darker areas. Comedians have historically been a fairly screwed up bunch and Rivers is no exception, as the film captures by chronicling her roller coaster career that has met with numerous personal struggles along the way.
The film was shot over 14 months, during which we see Rivers celebrate her 75th birthday (she is now 77) and wear the many hats which make up her almost 50 years in show business: stand-up comedian, QVC (and any other product that'll use her) shill, author, TV personality, philanthropist, and actress. The filmmakers had the good fortune to be shooting during a short, but eventful period that is fitfully emblematic of her entire career. Early scenes show a restless Rivers fretting over the empty pages in her day planner that symbolize another professional valley, and by the end of the movie we've seen her hit a career peak with a high profile win on NBC's The Celebrity Apprentice, which turns out to be even more satisfying because of Rivers' claim that she was blackballed from the network after leaving her job as the permanent guest host on The Tonight Show to host her own late night show on Fox in 1986 (when she called Johnny Carson to inform him of her decision he was so mad he slammed down the phone and never talked to Rivers for the rest of his life). Along the way, the viewer also sees Rivers' personally crushing defeat from the failed 2008 London run of her autobiographical play, which she had aspirations would eventually make it to Broadway.
The 1987 suicide of her husband, Edgar, is obviously brought up, although nothing terribly enlightening about it is revealed, having already been heavily discussed by Rivers over the years. The seemingly overprotective nature of the relationship with her daughter, Melissa, is addressed, but one only need to have seen a single episode of The Celebrity Apprentice (on which Melissa was also a contestant) to have gotten a good sense of it. And then there's the plastic surgery aspect of Joan Rivers...clearly, no writing piece on her would be complete without it. Rivers' propensity for going under the knife has become her trademark and she has gotten plenty of mileage out of it in her career. A current print ad campaign for Snickers features Rivers' face with the tagline "When I'm hungry, I get my face lowered". Frankly, I'm not even sure what the hell that means, but she's obviously poking fun at herself. The opening shot of the movie features an extreme close-up of Rivers' significantly reworked face, sans makeup, and it's not a pretty sight, folks. It was certainly a ballsy move to have subjected herself to such visual scrutiny, especially in the age of HD. I'd love to know how much trouble the filmmakers had in convincing her to do it, or if she actually suggested it (I tried asking the directors at the post-screening Q & A, but didn't get picked by the moderator to ask my question).
Joan Rivers turns out to be rich fodder for an in-depth bio like A Piece Of Work, based on her legendary career, still sharp wit, workaholic nature, frank opinions, and fascinatingly complicated personality.